Small space and active dog. This is reality for an increasing number of people who share their small city apartments with dogs. While there is no substitute for a long walk or run, there is a surprising amount you can do to keep your pup fit, both mentally and physically, in a confined space.
Tricks are the key to happy urban dogs. Trick training might once have had a reputation as dog training’s less serious cousin, but no more! It has tremendous benefits: enhanced bonding, increased canine confidence and a contained way to exercise your dog’s brain absent a yard filled with agility equipment. Trick training is also a fantastic way to build human/ canine communication skills, which will improve all areas of life with your dog. Finally, many build muscle tone and strength.
Tricks generally fall into two categories: physical movement (or manipulating or in some way interacting with a prop) and vocalization. Tricks can be fun and silly (spinning in circles and dancing) or practical (putting toys away in a basket). Essentially, anything your dog does—stretching, yawning, barking or other vocalizations—can be turned into a cued trick.
Some physical behaviors (bowing, spinning, sitting up and so forth) can be trained very easily using what’s called a luring method, in which something of high value to your dog is used to guide the dog into the desired position. Over time, a cue word is added to the behavior; then, the cue comes first and the luring is slowly phased out. The result? A polished trick.
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To turn other behaviors such as sneezing, yawning or vocalizing into tricks, a technique called capturing works well. Capturing takes a little more time than luring, as you aren’t manipulating the dog into the behavior but rather, are waiting for the dog to exhibit the behavior and then offering an immediate reward. To be successful, you need to keep treats and/or clicker close at hand. (Clickers can be extremely effective when you’re starting to train tricks because they allow the precise marking of a desired behavior; they’re especially helpful when utilizing capturing and shaping techniques.)
Shaping involves working in partnership with your dog; I like to think of it as putting together a puzzle, or “building” a trick. Shaping focuses on facilitating dogs’ use of their brains. With shaping, you are click/treating (or otherwise rewarding) at incremental steps along the way to the goal behavior. Shaping is useful when training a complicated or multi-part trick.
For example: my dog knows how to “play basketball,” which in our case means dunking a ball into a little basketball hoop. In order to get to the finished trick, I broke it down into small pieces so the dog could understand what I wanted. Eventually, the different pieces of the trick came together. To shape the basketball trick, I first treated for interest in the ball, then for picking it up, then for holding it, then for moving toward the basket and, finally, for dropping it through the net.
Although they take up a little more room, tricks involving props are fun and can add a new twist to your trick repertoire. Hoopla hula hoops or broomsticks can be used to make indoor jumps (be sure to keep the height low for safety). You can also repurpose children’s toys such as basketball hoops, stacking rings, skateboards or wagons for impressive and innovative tricks that show off your training skill and your dog’s brilliance. The biggest payoff, however, is the fun you’ll have together.